In a world of endless choices, desires, and opportunities, the practice of forming boundaries is something we don’t often consciously learn in our formative years. As an adult, you might not completely understand exactly what a boundary is, how it is established, and why it is helpful to you. Boundary-building is a relatively new skill to learn and establishing these “codes of conduct” is essential to healthy relationships and beyond.
Boundaries are imaginary lines we draw around ourselves to protect our physical and emotional self from the behavior and demands of others. Setting good boundaries requires knowing, accepting, communicating, and upholding limits. The need for such lines often comes after a period of burnout or overwhelm as an adult. Boundaries are the bridge between burnout and self-care. Healthy boundaries are also a foundational need in all relationships – those with parents, kids, loved ones, colleagues, and others. Our boundaries teach others how to interact with us in all sorts of situations, demonstrate our limits, and create healthy, value-rich spaces in which we can truly thrive. Boundaries also contribute to a sense of self-respect.
If you consistently feel depleted, overwhelmed, burned out, or inundated, it might be time to revisit the role of boundaries in your life and restructure where needed. Without boundaries, life can feel stressful, unproductive and out of sync with our true desires.
How are boundaries learned?
Although it’s true that boundaries are taught implicitly and explicitly through early experiences with caregivers and close family members, many times we simply observe boundaries in adolescence, without truly understanding their role and importance. We potentially learned about limits and appropriate human interactions in our everyday environments by witnessing boundaries in the lives of those closest to us. Perhaps we witnessed the support or contradiction of boundaries when our caregivers showed signs of balance versus overwhelm.
Those initial experiences were the impetus of our personal relationship with boundaries. Those early and ongoing situations are the foundation of healthy boundaries, or varying degrees of unhealthy boundaries, in our lives today.
Examples of boundaries
Boundaries exist on a spectrum from flexible to rigid. The healthiest boundaries are both firm and flexible. A flexible boundary is a loose commitment to that imaginary line needed to protect ourselves from the demands of others, while a rigid one is a firm limit.
Here are a couple examples:
Overly Flexible Boundary: Mary’s boss keeps asking her to stay late and work on weekends. Mary agrees despite her regime of self-care (exercise, diet, time with family and friends) declining. She gets sick and feels burned out.
Overly Rigid Boundary: Bill only dates a particular “type,” of woman and only goes on dates where he can control what happens. He only sees someone he’s dating when it is convenient for him, and ends the budding relationship if they cancel or reschedule a date.
Flexible and Firm Boundary: Heather’s boss asks her to stay late this week to help meet an office deadline. She agrees to this additional request, and also communicates to her boss that she is happy to help meet the occasional deadlines, but in general, she needs her evenings and weekends to tend to self-care.
Flexible and Firm Boundary: Bill prefers to date a certain “type,” but when he feels a spark, he is willing to date “outside his box.” He tends to initiate and plan the first date, but also enjoys when his date suggests a fun date idea. While he greatly values those who uphold their commitments, when his date asks to reschedule, he usually gives them the benefit of the doubt and agrees to reschedule one time.
Types of Boundaries
Boundaries exist in the physical world, as much as the emotional and psychological one. Simplified, we encounter the following types of boundaries daily:
● Teach others where your physical self ends and where others begin
● Teach others your comfort level with degrees of physical proximity (e.g., you likely feel more comfortable with a friend standing close to you as compared to someone you just met)
● Teach others what kind of touch you are comfortable and uncomfortable with (e.g., you might feel comfortable hugging some friends, while with others, you prefer to shake hands)
● Teach others what you are willing to allow or accept from them (such as blame, yelling, advice, and praise)
● Teach others how you would like to be spoken to/with
● Teach others about your beliefs and values
● Teach others to understand your emotional needs
Boundaries in your life
Think for a second about a boundary with someone in your life that is difficult for you to establish or uphold. Do any of these situations apply to you?
● Difficulty saying, “no” when you don’t want to go on another date with someone who you don’t feel comfortable spending time with
● Agreeing with others when they share certain beliefs, even though you really feel differently
● Difficulty not allowing your family members or friends share their drama with you day after day, especially if they pay little attention to how you are doing
● Saving others, when you really need to worry about yourself
● Allowing someone to touch you when you don't feel comfortable with them doing so
● Saying “yes” to every project your boss assigns you, at the expense of your work-life balance, self-care, and sanity
These are common situations and challenges with maintaining consistent boundaries. Violated boundaries might cause you to feel uncomfortable, taken advantage of, and/or feel emotionally or physically unsafe.. It’s critical to understand and overcome such challenges, because the foundation of all thriving relationships is healthy boundaries that support self-respect and your unique value system.
The relationship between boundaries and fear
The root of all unhealthy boundaries (both too flexible or too rigid) – no matter what type of boundary – is fear.
● Fear of being rejected
● Fear of being too needy
● Fear of not not being valued or accepted
● Fear of being smothered, taken advantage of, or being viewed as a push over
● Fear of being emotionally, physically, or sexually hurt
● Feeling unworthy of love, respect, protection, and/or personal space
In order to improve relationships, even the one with yourself, overcoming fears (or leaning into fears) is essential to building healthier boundaries. Most of the fear that exists alongside forming boundaries is around communicating about them, and enforcing them.
Think again about this specific challenging situation regarding boundaries with a person in your life. Ask yourself:
- What specific physical or emotional boundaries are difficult for you to establish or keep?
- How is fear preventing healthy boundaries with this situation or person(s) in your life?
- What do you fear will happen or not happen if you set this boundary?
- When were you taught about physical and emotional boundaries as a child, adolescent and adult?
- How could establishing or upholding these boundaries renew and transform your relationship with yourself and with others?
As a psychologist in Denver who specializes in relationships, I work with individuals to explore the role of boundaries in their life. If you are curious about the connection between boundaries and your happiness, contact me to schedule a free consultation.
Having and holding healthy boundaries is vital to personal and relationship health and happiness. In part two of this post, we’ll explore strategies to maintain fearless, healthy boundaries. Stay tuned...
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